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Civil Discourse

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Civil Discourse Isn’t Just About Polite Conversation

“Be civil.”  “Show some civility.”

These appeals are familiar to many of us. From Twitter to the The New York Times, the word “civility” has made a conspicuous appearance in recent years, becoming something of a lightning rod. A New York Times Magazine piece, “When is ‘civility’ a duty, and when is it a trap?” ran in the fall, a month after an opinion piece in the Washington Post titled, “The left and the right cry out for civility, but maybe that’s asking for too much.” Outside the United States as well, from Brazil to Britain, public discourse has become more rancorous.

But what is “civil discourse” anyway?

With a number of different meanings, "civility" can be a tricky word to pin down. And calls for civility in politics have been met by fears that these appeals give harmful views a free pass. April Holm, an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi, wrote in the Washington Post recently, “Calls for moderation and civility, combined with denouncing both sides as too extreme, are common in moments of moral and political crisis. But they are not apolitical. They take the focus away from injustice and put it instead on the behavior of those protesting it. This allows critics to adopt a moral high ground as the civil, reasonable ones without ever publicly taking sides in the debate.”

However, detached civility-as-politeness is not the same thing as the civility that drives principled debate and civil discourse. “It’s important to distinguish between two senses of civility," Archon Fung, the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, has written. "The first is a superficial kind of civility—being nice, refraining from insults or ad-hominem kinds of argument. The second is a deeper, more important (and older, for what that’s worth) sense of civility that is about behaving in ways that are necessary for cooperative projects such as schools and democratic societies to work well. This deeper sense of civility comes from the Latin civilitas—relating to citizens. Civility in this sense is behavior that is important for good citizenship.” Continue reading from Harvard Kennedy School

Resources from the Library

Finding Common Ground at The Westport Library

The Common Ground Initiative is The Westport Library’s new forum for public discourse on topical issues of importance to the community. The aim of the initiative is to host a positive, productive conversation on how we: work together to move forward as a civil society; encourage respectful, constructive dialogue; and build capacity to tackle challenging and/or controversial issues. The program planning for the initiative is led by The Westport Library in conjunction with community leaders representing a wide array of constituents and ideological standpoints. Learn more about the Event Series from The Westport Library

From the Collection

Link to Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation by John Freeman in the catalog
Link to Good Arguments by Bo Seo in the catalog
Link to Morality by Jonathan Sacks in the catalog
Link to Why Argument Matters by Lee Siegel in the catalog
Link to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell in the catalog
Link to Win Every Argument by Mehdi Hasan in the catalog
Link to The ALL NEW Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff in the catalog
Link to Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in our Obsession with Civility by Alex Zamalin in the catalog
Link to Civility by Stephen L. Carter in the catalog
Link to Beyond Civility by William Keith and Robert Danisch in the catalog
Link to The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby in the catalog
Link to Rude Democracy by Susan Herbst in the catalog
Link to American Dialogue: The Founders and Us by Joseph J Ellis in the catalog